The psychology of putting effectiveness before ego
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I spend a lot of time talking about BIG wins (like salary negotiation) instead of incremental cutbacks on lattes or paper towels. The “big win” mentality is how hundreds of my students have landed their dream jobs, dug out of debt, and outperformed their peers in countless situations.
But big wins aren’t always easy—especially when you use an unconventional approach. Sometimes we get criticized by our peers or even find ourselves at odds with cultural traditions. What do you do then? How do you stay focused when people expect you to fail?
Jay Cross, creator of the Do-It-Yourself Degree (and my former editor at IWT) has written a guest post about putting effectiveness before ego. He offers a powerful framework for dealing with haters, staying motivated, and using contrarian methods to achieve your goals.
Notice the key points Jay makes below:
- He doesn’t tell you how to AVOID criticism. (That’s easy: Say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.) Instead, he tells you to EXPECT criticism, ignore it, and focus on the results.
- Criticism creates opportunity: Because so many people avoid the unfamiliar, pioneers are often richly rewarded. (Another example of the Craigslist Penis Effect in action.)
- You need to test your assumptions instead of letting others think for you.
Jay has a keen insight into what motivates people, and I think you’ll enjoy his post below.
We love to romanticize contrarians: people who do things differently and accomplish what no one believed was possible.
It’s why we cherish Galileo and Charles Darwin, who advocated controversial ideas that society did not want to accept. It’s why we celebrate the Founding Fathers, who overthrew an oppressive government instead of obeying it. It’s even why we admire risk-takers in our own lives, like a gutsy co-worker who calls out the boss when he’s wrong.
We get an emotional rush just hearing these stories, and with good reason.
Contrarians are life’s change agents, the social jackhammers who challenge stale traditions with fresh thinking. While others mimic Niedermeyer from Animal House (taking whatever life gives them with “thank you sir, may I have another?” passivity), contrarians refuse to stay silent when they discover a better way.
We often wish we had the courage to do that…but it’s not easy, is it?
Even when we’re sure we’re right, the moment of truth comes, and we fold—often because we fear criticism. Social psychology experiments have shown that we will change a test answer we know is correct…simply because the people sitting next to us changed their answers.
We are instinctively afraid of going against the grain…and the greater the stakes, the greater the fear.
Most people believe contrarians (especially famous ones like Steve Jobs) are simply born without this fear. They use phrases like “ice in their veins” to describe the cold, bulletproof personalities contrarians supposedly have.
Awakening your inner contrarian
For most of us, though, contrarianism is something we can cultivate. Just as a muscle grows stronger with exercise, your willingness to break from social norms and test new approaches will expand with practice. It just takes a new emotional framework to fall back on.
Today, I want to show you that framework. Instead of simply applauding you for revering contrarians, I am going to encourage you to BE one—to actually try the “radical” or “crazy” things you’ve long believed would work—by revealing the fascinating inner psychology of anyone who ever dared to think differently.
I call it “The Contrarian’s Cycle of Criticism, Acceptance, and Awe.” And it’s about putting effectiveness before ego.
Once you understand the emotional trials every risk-taker experiences, you will push straight past your fears, driven by the amazing results waiting for you at the end.
Allow me to tell you a personal story of my own struggle with the Contrarian’s Cycle, and then deconstruct it using the cycle itself.
My own struggle to do things differently
I ran straight into these fears when I discovered the Do-It-Yourself Degree approach to graduating. Rather than taking years of classes and racking up massive student loans (like 90% of students do) I learned that I could finish my bachelor’s degree by taking tests instead. Classes cost $3,000 and up—often much more—but the tests cost just $80-$100 apiece.
Result: you can earn a bachelor’s degree in 1 year or less for under $5,000 in testing fees. The best part? It’s a totally self-managed approach. You graduate as fast as you are willing to work.
I was fascinated by this. Not only would it solve a major problem in my life (I had been frustrated with the class schedules at my school for years) it also seemed like an incredible opportunity for students like me, who felt “locked out” of the traditional college system by time or money.
But one of my friends saw it differently. The one drawback of the DIY Degree approach was that I’d have to leave the University of Connecticut and transfer to a less prestigious school. Once she knew this, my friend (we’ll call her “Chloe”) tore into me:
- “You’re the smartest person I know. Why would you settle for a lesser school on your resume?”
- “This seems like taking the easy way out. You’re above that.”
- “This upsets me. I expect better from you.”
I knew these criticisms were irrelevant on an intellectual level. As a writer and entrepreneur, no one cared where I went to school. I had already landed incredible positions—including working for Ramit—while I was still in college. Today, I manage data visualization projects for companies like Intuit and Cisco.
(Top performers care about results, not resumes.)
The DIY Degree approach isn’t “the easy way out”, either. It actually takes even more dedication, because you are totally on your own and each test covers a full semester in 3 hours.
And she only “expected better from me” because she thinks big-name universities are essential to top performance. (I think big-name universities accept top performers and take credit for their success.)
Yet, even though I knew all of this…those comments still cut pretty deeply. It’s easy to ignore harsh critiques from a stranger, but not from someone you respect. It was enough to make me second-guess my plan…briefly.
In the end, I decided that Chloe was dead wrong. True, the DIY Degree approach wasn’t the best way for everyone to graduate. But I wasn’t everyone. I was a self-motivated producer who had done more without a degree than most did ten years after graduating. And either way, having the word “UConn” on my resume did not justify a mortgage-sized loan to me. All I cared about was my degree being legitimate and respectable.
(If anything, I was willing to bet that my unique, time-and-money saving graduation strategy would impress future employers, who want to work with problem-solvers.)
So, instead of folding, I pressed on and earned my DIY Degree as planned. Once she saw that I was serious, Chloe’s criticism quieted down, and soon after I graduated she reversed her position completely.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this” became “I wish I didn’t have student debt either.”
What happened here? Is there a predictable pattern that nearly all similar situations follow?
The Contrarian’s Cycle of Criticism, Acceptance, and Awe
What I went through was a version of The Contrarian’s Cycle of Criticism, Acceptance, and Awe.
Stage 1: Criticism
“It’s human nature to stick with traditional beliefs long after they outlast any conceivable utility.“ – Jim Pinkerton
First, Chloe criticized my decision, pushing every emotional button she could to talk me out of it. This happens to virtually everyone who tries a new approach to an old problem.
No matter how sound your logic, no matter how persuasive your arguments, no matter how successful you’ve been in the past, something about new approaches just makes people uneasy. They are emotionally invested in “the usual way” and, in some cases, have based their very sense of self on it.
To restore equilibrium, they say things like:
- “Why don’t you just do [THE USUAL WAY] like everyone else?
- “Only a [PEJORATIVE NAME] would do/think [THE CONTRARIAN WAY]”
- “Sure, it sounds good, but that’s not how the “real world” works.
Stage 2: Acceptance
“After an argument, silence may mean acceptance or the continuation of resistance by other means.” – Mason Cooley
Then, once she realized I was doing this no matter what, she accepted it. Acceptance is not support, though. She still (as will most at this stage) fully expected me to fail. She just knew vocally opposing it was pointless now.
What people say during this stage:
- “I don’t want to talk about [WHAT YOU’RE DOING]
- “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
- “So you still think you’re going to [GET THE RESULTS YOU EXPECT]?”
Stage 3: Awe
“What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.” – Warren Buffett
Finally, once I received my degree and proved there was nothing shady or weird about it—and that all I had done was graduate faster—Chloe was awed by my results.
You will notice this, too. After the benefits of your “crazy” plan begin to materialize, the whole game changes.
What people say during this stage:
- “How did you do that?”
- “That’s not fair – I want your [UNIQUE RESULTS!]”
- “Some people catch all the lucky breaks.”
3 top-performing contrarians who put effectiveness before ego
I want to share three inspiring examples of famous risk-takers who made this cycle work for them instead of against them.
Billy Beane, GM of MLB’s Oakland Athletics
What His Peers Did: Spent every dime competing for the same flashy superstars every other team wanted.
What He Did Differently: Used statistical analysis to identify boring, “no-name” players with massively undervalued skills.
What The Critics Said: Rivals told Beane he “couldn’t build a baseball team with a computer” and to “enjoy telling your daughter why you work at Dick’s Sporting Goods after this disaster of a season unfolds.”
The Results: Beane’s teams made the playoffs 5 times between 2000-2006, despite losing star players to richer teams and spending less per victory than any team in Major League Baseball from 1998-2008.
When co-workers mocked Beane’s new players for not looking athletic, he asked: “are we looking for baseball players or selling jeans?”
John Carlton, world-famous advertising copywriter
What His Peers Did: Wrote the same lifeless, boring advertisements as everyone else in order to “sound professional.”
What He Did Differently: Crafted emotionally charged, attention-grabbing stories (like his famous “One-Legged Golfer” ad) to hypnotically drive sales.
What The Critics Said: “We can’t publish advertising like this! We’ll look like amateurs. Our customers will be offended. Our competitors will mock us. We’ll get sued!”
The Results: Today, John is known as “the most ripped-off writer on the web” and charges fees that cause unprepared clients to choke.
His secret? Finding clients who could withstand the Contrarian’s Cycle:
“The best thing that ever happened in my career was to meet The Boys — those clients who lured me into working with them by promising to run everything I wrote, as I wrote it. No whining, no tears, and they took all the heat from outraged audiences and pissed-off talent. They stood their ground with me for over 20 years, because I only used solid fundamentals when I wrote for them… including, of course, the fundamentals of killer hooks and jaw-dropping storytelling… and it worked like crazy. Over and over and over again.
Without them “taking the leash off me”, most of my now-infamous ads would never have seen print, or gotten mailed or been posted online. They swallowed their fear, because the fluttery green bales of money coming in proved the case.”
I worked with John for over a year, and he confronts every client with one question: “are you trying to impress your customers or your colleagues?”
Tim Tebow, quarterback for NFL’s New York Jets
What His Peers Did: Ran the same predictable, pass-heavy offense as every other NFL team.
What He Did Differently: Used a different offense called the “run-pass option” that was much tougher to defend.
What The Critics Said: Football pundits used Tebow’s below-average passing skills to conclude that he would “never succeed in a passing-dominated league” and was not a “real NFL quarterback”…even as he kept winning.
The Results: Kerry J. Byne devised a new statistic (Real Quarterback Rating) to measure ALL aspects of QB play: not just passing, but also rushing, sacks, fumbles, and other metrics under QB control.
Beneath this new lens, a fascinating picture emerged. Tim Tebow, dismissed as a misfit with no hope of lasting in the NFL, was winning with a decidedly contrarian playing style:
“…Tebow is no statistical circus freak winning in spite of himself. Tebow’s [teams] are winning because he consistently outperforms the opposing quarterback […] In fact, he consistently outperforms them by a wide margin.”
Asked to explain his improbable 2011 success (which included taking a 1-4 team into round two of the playoffs) Tebow said “I care about winning games, not passing yards.”
What is the common trait? Each of these trailblazers decided that effectiveness (the long-term RESULTS of their unconventional plans) mattered more than their egos. And they were vindicated in the end.
Pushing yourself through the cycle
We all need motivation to achieve our goals. The difference is that most people derive their motivation from safety in numbers: the encouragement of friends and family who believe in what they are doing (or even just the implicit social sanction of going with the flow.)
Contrarians need motivation, too—often much more, in fact. But their motivation comes solely from themselves and the results they are after. Not only do they create their own motivation, they frequently do so amidst harsh criticism and a complete absence of outside support.
Followers are innocent until proven guilty: cheered on from beginning to end. Contrarians are guilty until proven innocent: cheered for only when their plans work.
Does this make it difficult to keep moving? Of course! It’s easy to feel motivated when you’re an engineering student, lining up a secure project management job like your father. It’s a lot tougher when you’re an aspiring musician, painfully aware your parents wish you were doing something else.
But if you want to achieve extraordinary results, you need to put effectiveness before ego.
The reason I followed through with the DIY Degree is that I saw Stage 3 before starting Stage 1. Instead of crumbling under criticism, I made a calculated bet that my plan would work. Most importantly, I decided my plan working was the only thing that mattered.
Achieving breakthrough results by asking The Naive Question
What also empowered me to push through the cycle is The Naive Question, which says:
“If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?”
The beauty of this question is that it forces you to ignore everything other than results. If you discover a better way to do something (earn more money, land a dream job, graduate college) then “but we’ve always done X” should not stop you. The Naive Question establishes a Darwinian selection process where only the best ideas survive.
This leads to some provocative questions, such as:
- “Why is the workday 9-5?”
- “Why do we settle for any job instead of identifying our dream jobs?”
- “Why did colleges stop being a place for devoted students and become mandatory for anyone who wants a better career?”
Again: sometimes the answer to The Naive Question is a resounding “yes!” As Tim Ferriss wrote in The 4-Hour Work Week, “I don’t walk down the street on my hands because everyone else walks on their feet.” Contrarianism only works when your way is demonstrably better than the norm. Frequently, however, it is.
Consider the age-old “renting vs. buying” debate. We love telling ourselves that home ownership is an investment and that renters are just “throwing their money away.” Yet we almost never run the numbers! When we do, we discover that home ownership is anything but a good investment. Indeed, it parasitically drains your net worth with “invisible costs” like maintenance, property taxes, and homeowner’s insurance.
The invisible scripts of American culture tell us to buy…but renting vs. buying is actually an “effectiveness or ego” question. Do you simply want a cost-effective place to live? Or are you more concerned with social status? If you’ve never run the numbers (like comparing home price appreciation to stock market returns) ask yourself what the answer is.
Results and happiness prove everything
Contrarianism is not simply about “sticking it to the man.” You need not be rude, disrespectful, or insensitive. It’s actually about living a better life—whatever that means to you.
Think about the strategies Ramit teaches: they are all contrarian. Most people are not ambitiously creating side incomes, or setting up automated financial systems to grow their wealth, or using advanced research, networking, and psychology to land their dream jobs.
They certainly are not using the DIY Degree to graduate in ¼ of the time, like I teach my readers.
But the people who do get massive results —because they were willing to put effectiveness before ego.
Learn more about the power of taking action — watch my video here.
What about you? Please leave a detailed comment with:
- One example of how you have achieved great results by putting effectiveness before ego (or, if you have not done so yet, one example of how you could.)
- What are the one or two biggest “contrarian changes” that, if implemented, could have the biggest impact on your life?
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